Proposed Law To Prevent Chemical Spills Gains Bipartisan Support, But At A Cost

CREDIT: AP Photo Michael Switzer

The GeStamp Stamping Plant-South Charleston (W.Va.) was one of several distribution locations open Sunday morning, Jan. 12, 2014 so local residents can pick up bottled water and fill containers after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River.

The now-infamous chemical spill that contaminated the water supply of some 300,000 West Virginians in January prompted federal lawmakers to push for a law that could help prevent a similar crisis. But now, three months later, that proposed law has been stripped of some of its most sweeping protections.

On Thursday, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee approved a new version of the Chemical Safety Drinking Water Protection Act, a bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The bill now has bipartisan support, but at a cost, as the new version removes broad language that would have subjected all above-ground chemical storage facilities to regular inspections.

As originally introduced, the bill would have required states to conduct inspections every three years for all above-ground chemical storage tanks that are located near potential drinking water sources. In the case of the recent West Virginia incident, it had been 23 years since anyone inspected the tanks that leaked approximately 10,000 gallons of a mysterious chemical called crude MCHM, used to clean coal, into the drinking water supply.

The new version, according to National Journal, will replace broad language about what constitutes a chemical storage tank and replace it with more specific language about what types of chemicals can be included in the tanks in order to qualify for inspection. This leaves the potential for more unknown chemicals, such as crude MCHM, to be exempt.

The new version will also pinpoint some types of storage tanks that will be exempt from the inspection requirement, and let states opt out of creating a program if they don’t want to. If they opt out, however, the EPA will have to do the inspections for them.

Still, the proposed law would establish safety regulations for above-ground chemical storage tanks, which are largely unregulated. And it’s not the only effort that has been moving forward since the spill. In March, the West Virginia House of Representatives passed a bill that requires the state to conduct an inventory of its all above-ground storage tanks, about 1,600 of which are located close to drinking-water supplies.

Similar controversy over that bill stirred when some lawmakers attempted to remove some key protections, though the final version included most of its original language.

Maya Nye, president of the West Virginia citizen group People Concerned About Chemical Safety, told ThinkProgress that the discussion process over the federal bill sounded a lot like what happened with her state’s bill — lots of talk over removing broad safety standards in favor of less encompassing provisions.

“The way it sounds, these amendments were created to better assist industry than they were to protect communities,” Nye said. “Overall though, we applaud the efforts of moving some sort of legislation forward to protect communities and their drinking water.”

Of course, one bill to require more inspections of chemical storage tanks won’t be enough to ensure more complete protection of the public from chemical spills. Advocates are currently pushing for broader reform on both the federal and state level, including enforceable safety standards for chemical companies, heightened community preparation programs, and updates to the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act.

Advocates cite increasing chemical spills across the country as reason for their proposals.

According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, 1,374 different facilities leaked 287 different chemicals into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans in 2010 — all for a total of 194 million pounds of chemicals released that year. As a report in Bloomberg Businessweek notes, that’s almost 10,000 tons of chemicals spilled into U.S. waters in one year, and those are just the ones that have been officially reported.